Holding Hands They Died Together on Their Own Terms

Source: rd.com

A romantic, idyllic, playful and cute story complete with pictures appeared on the very front pages of the Globe and Mail newspaper for April 2, 2018.

On a beautiful spring day, after 73 years of marriage, George (95) and Shirley (94) toasted each other with family and good champagne, held hands and left this life gently and together, on their own terms.

Two nights before, they went out for one last date to their favourite restaurant in Yorkville.  The following night they bid farewell to more than 20 members of their immediate family at a bon voyage dinner at their daughter’s apartment.

On March 27, 2018, the night they had chosen, to “fly away”, as they had always put it, after champagne and nibbling on a last supper of hors d’oeuvres of lobster, salmon and filet, they walked into their bedroom and lay down together, holding hands.

The two doctors, one for each patient, inserted intravenous lines into their arms.  The minister prayed while Mozart, Bach and Scottish folk songs all from their playlist of “fly away music” wafted through the room.   With his wife next to him George looked at his children standing at the end of the bed, and said, “I love you all.”

Tender, warm, romantic, elegant and cute!  A fairy tale death!  But isn’t there something radically wrong, here?  It is all on their own terms.  George and Shirley chose their date to “fly away”.  From what they wanted to fly is clear; they did not want to linger and suffer in their age-related frailty.

On their wedding day they promised to love each other in good times, and seemingly they were very much in love.  But they also promised to love each other in bad times.  Fidelity in bad times reveals the depth of love and offers an experience of committed love.  In bad times friends and relatives are invited to do more than party with us.

They accompany us, they comfort us, they carry the burden with us.  Sometimes they love us so much they allow themselves to be helpless, but still there at our side.  George and Shirley fly away not having experienced the extent of their love for each other and without having given their family and friends the opportunity to be faithfully present to them even in bad times.

The family is left behind, not having been able to express their care for their parents and grandparents in their time of need. This could have been George and Shirley’s last and most meaningful gift to their family.

And there is no apparent focus on the destination of George and Shirley’s flight.  It seems that faith in a loving God who is there to receive them isn’t part of their awareness.  Isn’t that sad?  They miss the joy of anticipation. There is a departure lounge with joyful and tender goodbyes, but no focus on the welcome at the arrival gate.

And seemingly there is no experience of the one with whom they could fly.  For Christians it is with the Risen Lord Jesus who conquered death.  Every faith has its own expression of the holy mystery of passing over into eternal life.  And even people who profess to have no faith can see themselves as part of the universe and want to continue making the world a better place.

Is life our decision?  We did not choose our first breath.  Can we dare to choose when will be our last breath?  Our life is a gift from God.  Assisted dying seems so loving and peaceful, but is it not really a selfish act of independence and control?  Is it not simply suicide?

Is it not precisely what Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life chose not to do?  In the face of suffering, Jesus said, “The sorrow in my heart is so great that it almost crushes me…My Father, if it is possible, take this cup of suffering from me! Yet not what I want, but what you want” (Mt 26.38-39).

Jesus understands the physical, the psychological and even the spiritual pain of suffering.  He experienced it in his flesh.  But Jesus willingly took up the cross imposed upon him and turned all the suffering it brought into an act of redemptive love for others.  By embracing suffering out of love for the world, Jesus saved the world!

The coming of suffering and death into each of our lives is a moment of opportunity – an invitation to be truly loving.  Jesus embraced his suffering and turned it into a genuine act of love for others.

We too can embrace our suffering and turn it into a redemptive prayer for others, for the world.  It won’t be cute, it won’t be romantic. No champagne, no lobster hors d’oeuvres and no “flying away music”. In fact, our dying could be exhaustingly painful for us and for our family and friends.

But it will be so genuinely human it will be divine.  Christ will be suffering in us and through us.  From our death bed will come not merely the emotions and the ambience of love, but the authentic, faithful and selfless love that Jesus taught.

It is this kind of love that redeems and that will bring new love and new life into the world.  We will not be flying away from family, friends and the world.  We will be always present through our abiding love.

Robert Foliot, SJ is the Rector of Regis College, Toronto.

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